The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that corporations may not claim a “personal privacy” exemption when the U.S. government wants to release files involving them under the Freedom of Information Act.
The decision reversed a lower court ruling that said AT&T could try to block disclosure of information by asserting an exception for invasions of personal privacy. The Federal Communications Commission, which gathered the AT&T information as part of an investigation into certain billing practices, had appealed, arguing that the disputed exemption has been given only to individuals — not corporations — in potentially embarrassing personal situations.
AT&T had contended that because key federal law defines “person” as including corporations, the Freedom of Information Act reference to “personal privacy” covers corporations, too. AT&T won at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a decision that U.S. government lawyers called “a singular outlier in an otherwise uniform body of more than 35 years” of law. […]
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized that, ” ‘Personal’ ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities.” […]
The case had been closely watched, in part because a five-justice conservative majority last term had enhanced the rights of corporations as it lifted federal campaign-finance spending limits on corporations, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.